NHL Alumni Chris Nilan chats about winning the Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1986, stepping onto the ice for the first time as a Bruin in his hometown and expresses a powerful message to anyone who is struggling with addiction.
BY: Riley Horan
August 25, 2020
With 688 games played and 3043 penalty minutes, the 13-year NHL veteran looked back on some of his most memorable moments on and off the ice. From growing up admiring the big bad Bruins, to using his role as a protector to help educate students on anti-bullying, Chris Nilan talks in-depth about his personal experiences and the obstacles he has overcome. Here’s Nilan in his own words:
RILEY HORAN: How has life been lately?
CHRIS NILAN: I’ve been practicing my social distancing. I stay home, I walk my dogs. When I go to the supermarket or anywhere, I wear gloves and a mask, and I just don’t interact with people. It’s funny, I was in the store here in Montreal the other day, and I had a hat on, I had a mask on and I had the gloves on, and some lady saw me and she said, “I know who you are!”
RH: So you’re still getting RECOGNIZED?
CN: Yeah just one person but it was funny how I think I can walk around the store and no one would know me but apparently, someone did!
RH: DESPITE BEING drafted 231st in the 19th round to Montreal, YOU MADE IT TO THE NHL AND WON A STANLEY CUP. HOW DOES THAT FEEL?
CN: Well, it was awesome just to get drafted. I was so just happy to be drafted by Montreal. I actually always wanted to be a Boston Bruin growing up, but I was drafted by their arch rival, the Canadiens. I was just happy to get an opportunity to maybe come to a training camp in the NHL, and I did. So, it didn’t matter where I was drafted to be honest with you. Coming to Montreal into my first camp, I was really intimidated. It was a different experience for me, it was a whole different ball game at that level. I spent some time in the minors, learned the fight game pretty quickly and then I got called up. At the time, Montreal was going through a transition. They went from four cups in a row to guys starting to retire and new blood coming into the organization. Seven years into it, I got that opportunity to be on a team that managed to come together at the right time. We played together, stuck up for one another, battled together, bled together and eventually won a Stanley Cup in 1986 together, which is the ultimate goal. For me, to do it with the Canadiens was even more special. Doing it with an organization with history, tradition, pride and class.
RH: When did you learn to fight and realize that it might be an asset FOR YOU? Did you have any inspirations?
CN: I fought a lot growing up. In street hockey, but never really on the ice. I grew up watching the Bruins. I loved the big bad Bruins. I loved the tough hockey teams, so certainly Bobby Orr was a hero of mine. Watching Terry O’Reilly, John McKenzie, John Wensink and Wayne Cashman, I loved the way they played with an edge. I loved the way they didn’t take any crap from anyone. I was kind of that way in the street growing up. When I got to the American Hockey League, I started to play hockey like the big bad Bruins, I was a kid out of college playing against a lot of Canadian kids who grew up in the game fighting. I never fought on the ice and I was playing that physical game that I had come to know being a Bruins fan and quite frankly, the way the game should be played. I was on a five-game tryout for $200 a game and during my first game I ended up in a fight with Glen Cochrane, from Philly’s farm team. I ended up cutting him in the fight, I did pretty good and the Montreal Canadiens ended up giving me a contract the next day. Once I fought him, word got around the league that this kid in Nova Scotia is fighting, who is he? I was fighting like every night. I played 49 games and I had three or four hundred penalty minutes. Just fighting every night. Someone was always looking to challenge me. I just wasn’t taking crap from anybody and it ended up being a good thing for me.
RH: Who would have thought that that one fight would lead to a contract.
CN: Well I never thought it would. Certainly, I was a bit naive at how the league operated and what was really important at the time and I guess that was one of the important things. The Canadiens’ farm team from the previous year got beat up and pushed around by the Maine Mariners, which was Philly’s farm team, and they wanted a tougher team. So everything lined up for me really well that first year and not only did I have all the penalty minutes but I had 15 goals and 10 assists in 25 games. I put some hockey out there, that I think surprised them and that helped me get my foot in the door with the big team.
RH: What was the moment like getting to step on the ice as a Boston Bruin after being such a large fan as a kid growing up?
CN: Well, unfortunately, it was towards the end of my career but it was still a great moment. The fans in Boston certainly hated me when I was with the Canadiens. Often there would be 17,000 people chanting “Nilan sucks” all at once and in my hometown. I kind of felt bad for my mom and dad but they certainly understood why the fanbase was doing that. When I came to Boston after leaving New York, I remember before the game Ray Bourque said to me, “God, you’re nervous, are you always like this before a game?” I said, “No, not really. It’s just I don’t know how the fanbase is going to react to me when I go out there.” He said, “They are going to love you, don’t worry” and sure enough, Ray was right. When I stepped out on the ice, they called my name and number and the fans embraced me. It felt good to be accepted by the fans in my hometown and quite frankly, I was surprised, but I guess it was just a difficult time for me. I was near the end of my career, I was beat up and I had undergone quite a few surgeries. It was getting tougher every year to fight these young guys coming into the league that were getting bigger, stronger and meaner. It wasn’t easy at that point, so I struggled a bit. I still did my job but it was getting a lot more difficult on me. I was pretty honest with myself on what was happening to me and it wasn’t fun, but I realized what was going on. You lose that little bit of your edge. You lose that half step if you will and it’s not fun going through it and I had to go through it. It was part of my career. It’s just like working my way into the league, I was working my way out.
RH: You hold the record for most penalties in a single NHL game and logged over 200 fights in your career. What was it like skating with that presence on the ice every night?
CN: People are going to mess with you that’s for sure. Not everybody but there is always somebody on the team that’s going to be willing to drop their gloves with you. The thing with me was that I was always willing to accept the challenge and I was always willing to stand up for my teammates. I loved my job, I loved sticking up for my teammates. Yeah, fighting was difficult at times but I was a young, hungry kid and I loved my job. I loved doing it. Quite frankly, nothing was going to stop me at the time. I didn’t care who it was, I was going to fight them. We have to go, you want to go and you’re calling me, then I am coming. I didn’t have a problem with that. I guess down the road it got a little tougher. Like anything, I started to have some injuries after probably about eight or nine years in the league. It got tough mentally, it got tough physically and it got tough emotionally at times as I got older. And I tried to battle through that and do my job as long as I could and as I said, at the end, it was really difficult. My last year was a really difficult year because you are dealing with so much. Physically, mentally and emotionally you are coming to grips with, “this thing is coming to an end.” Fighting was getting tougher as I said. Fighting big guys like Stu Grimson coming in. Although I was willing to fight them and I hung in there with them, it was getting really tough.
RH: Tell us about the Bob Probert that you knew and the relationship you had with him.
CN: He was just honestly a big sweetheart. He was a beautiful guy, a really nice person. He was like a big kid that just loved life. Certainly, Bob had his issues over the years, I did too. We were both in the same boat that way and I just loved him as a human being and person. He was a really happy-go-lucky, and fun guy to be around. We went to Afghanistan a couple times together. We went to Abu Dhabi. We played in some Alumni hockey games together over the years. As I said, I just loved him. He was a great person and I think he’s right there as one of the best all-time toughest players in the NHL. Certainly up there, Tie Domi is another one. Probert and him had their bouts, great fights. Yeah, I miss Bob and it’s a tough thing, a terrible thing.
RH: You were INVOLVED IN a documentary profiling enforcers in the NHL called “The Last Gladiators”. Can you tell us about that process and opening up about some of your struggles?
CN: Yeah, I got contacted on Facebook, through my daughter. Barry Reece, the producer, got in touch with my daughter and she got in touch with me. I had just gotten out of rehab for drugs and alcohol. I was trying to get my life together and they approached me and told me what it was about. I wasn’t sure at first but then I did a little research on who was doing it. It was Alex Gibney, Oscar-winning documentarian, who is probably one of the foremost documentarians of our time. He’s right up there with some of the greats and he was directing this with Barry Reece, they were just real good guys. They love the game of hockey, their kids played it and when they told me what it was about I said, “yeah, I’m interested.” I ended up sitting down with them and doing it. It was actually pretty good for me. It was honestly an extension of my therapy, after what I had gone through with drugs and alcohol. It helped me process a lot of it. It helped me to be able to open myself up and talk freely about it. I wasn’t worried about what people knew about me or how my life went. I thought it could be something other than just having some redemptive qualities, it could also be a way to open people’s eyes to what a guy like me, in my role, goes through. It could also open people’s eyes to the world of addiction and show people that when it comes to addiction, they shouldn’t discriminate. It can happen to anybody and anybody who is willing to be honest with themselves, become open-minded and just has a willingness to get better, can get sober. And that’s what I did, I got clean and sober by getting honest with myself about where I was in my life. Being open-minded to new things and then I was also willing to do the work. As I said, doing that documentary was a bit of an extension of my therapy. The three months of therapy, which was intensive therapy at times, I went through to learn how to live a new life. A clean and sober life and I couldn’t be happier today. I’ll be honest, the NHL was a big part in that. People are often quick to point the finger at the NHL. “They don’t do this, they don’t do that.” Listen, there is no organization or institution out there that is perfect. There is no person that is perfect but the NHL certainly helped me out and I know they helped other guys out who are in the same boat as me. They are willing to help those guys get better and get well. The NHL, the NHL Alumni Association, NHLPA, the NHL doctors, Dr. Shaw, Dr. Lewis and the great Dan Cronin, those guys helped steer me in the right direction. Helped me understand how to do the work and what work I had ahead of me. They’ve been there for me, so believe me, the NHL was a big part of helping me get back on my feet.
RH: Today, you have spoken to over 100 schools on anti-bullying. Can you talk about what that has been like getting to speak to so many children WITH such a powerful message?
CN: Yeah, I enjoyed doing it. I moved back to Montreal and I wanted to get involved in the community. I thought that could be a good way. I went to workshops, I studied it, and I read incidents on it. I talked to different psychologists and social workers who worked in the field. I came up with a speech that I thought I could reach children with, especially being someone who defended my teammates as a player. I would be able to convey the message of being able to stand up for yourself and if you couldn’t, let them know it’s okay to be able to stick up for someone else, to speak up for someone else. I am not saying go out and beat someone up. No, I’m saying being able to speak up and be there for somebody who quite frankly has a difficult time standing up for themselves. I’ve always defended the underdog. I’ve always stuck up for people who quite frankly are scared to maybe stand up for themselves, I’ve always done that. Whether it was in hockey or on the street. I had a good message, I still have a good message for kids out there and it was really fun to do. I don’t do it as much anymore but I certainly enjoyed my time doing it.
RH: You played 13 seasons in the NHL with a Stanley Cup win, overcame addiction and now have a successful second act in your career with a popular radio show on TSN. Can you tell us about what it’s been like working on the media side of HOCKEY?
CN: Well I never liked the media. I don’t look at myself as being in the media, but I am. I love to analyze the game and speak about the game. I think my voice is a little different from some of the other guys who do the same job as me, considering the fact that I played the game. It doesn’t mean they don’t understand the game. Doesn’t mean they can’t have an opinion about the game and what’s going on. The one edge I have is that I played the game and I really understand what it’s like to be in the locker room before a game seven. I understand what it’s like to get beat up. I understand what it’s like to beat someone up. I understand what it’s like to score a winning goal. I understand the dynamic of the locker room. That I think helps me and separates me from the rest of the guys that do what I do. I also feel that I am very upfront and honest, and I have gotten positive feedback on this. Now, I think I’ve been more than fair with players over the course of my eight years doing this and I think I’m really fair with the players. Guys are going to make mistakes. Guys are going to screw up, I get all that. The one thing I won’t tolerate when I come down on a guy is when I see a guy who dogs it out on the ice. I didn’t like that in a teammate and I certainly don’t like it as a fan or someone who makes his living commentating on the game. Guys are going to miss an open net or hit the post, it’s going to happen. That’s the game, I get all that. What I never accepted as a player and I won’t accept on this end of it is someone who doesn’t work. Who doesn’t give the effort night in and night out. And I know there are nights their legs just won’t go, it happens, I get that, but when I see guys dogging it consistently or guys that don’t show up when the puck is dropped, that’s when I have a problem. That’s really the only time.
RH: Your story serves as an inspiration to a lot of people in and outside the game of hockey, do you have a message for anyone currently going through some of the obstacles you experienced and overcame?
CN: Yes, you might feel like you can’t get out of the rut you are in. You might feel like nothing goes right in your life. A lot of times when people are addicted to drugs or alcohol, they self mediate because there is some underlying issue. It’s okay to show weakness. It’s okay to ask for help if you need it. I was never the one to ask for help and I know I got so sick and tired of being sick and tired. I had the phone number for Dan Cronin and I called him. It was given to me by a former teammate, who said if you ever run into any issues in life, if you’re struggling at all and you need to talk to someone, there’s the card. The man’s name on the card was Dan Cronin. I called him and man, it was the best phone call I’ve ever made. Up until that time the phone was real heavy, I didn’t want to pick it up. I thought I could get through what I was going through on my own. That was certainly was the biggest mistake I could have made in my life and the best thing I ever did in my life was picking up that telephone, and making that call to get help. I was 52 years old when that happened and I’m 62 now. It was the best thing that I could have ever done for myself and in turn, for the people around me that I love and care about and that love and care about me. Making that phone call and asking for help and getting help was as I said, if people are out there and they are stuck, It’s never too late and don’t be afraid to ask for help because the help is there. There are so many people, and it doesn’t matter who you are in this life. You don’t have to be a hockey player. You could be a postman, you could be a lawyer, you could be a doctor, you could be a baseball player. Anybody. There is always somebody there to help. The people are there. You just have to be able to pick up the phone and ask for that help because it’s there. The NHL, the NHLPA and the NHL Alumni Association were huge in helping me get my life back together. You know, when you think the hockey world has forgotten about you, it’s not the case. If there are any former players, referees, linesmen, anybody who’s struggling, they can always reach out and talk to me. I am someone who’s been in their shoes as a player in the NHL and being associated with the NHL but also, someone who got to the other side of a very difficult situation.
Stay tuned for more upcoming interviews with NHL Alumni showing a more personal side of the game.